You may be surprised to learn that Jessica Blair is in fact a 94-year-old war veteran called Bill Spence.
Born in Middlesbrough in 1923, Bill trained as a teacher but signed up to the Royal Air Force in 1942 and went on to fly 36 Lancaster missions over Germany. More recently he ran a post office with his wife Joan, who sadly died a few years ago. A father of four and a great grandfather, he lives in Ampleforth, Yorkshire and has written dozens of family sagas, westerns and a non-fiction book about the history of whaling.
How did you start writing? Can you tell us about your journey to becoming a writer?
I was always encouraged to read. From a very early age I was allowed comics. There were always books, magazines etc around our house. We had two eight volume encyclopaedias and I spent hours browsing through them. (I still have them!) I think all these situations led me to a love of books which has remained with me all these years. I am passionate about them. I believe it is this deep interest that brought me a desire to write. Like many people the war changed my life. I married during the war, was fortunate to survive and I settled with my wife, Joan, where she lived in Ampleforth. The desire to write was still there and I wrote short items for a local newspaper, gradually moving to magazines but I had a desire to write a book. But what about? My experiences in the RAF? There was a ready-made subject. I liked fiction and non-fiction so I combined these in a story with my experiences as background. I did this for my own satisfaction - I knew nothing about publishing or where to go with my finished book. Then came a stroke of luck. I saw a small paragraph in our evening paper stating that a paperback publisher was running a competition for war stories. I thought, why not send mine to that publisher? It did not win the competition but they offered to publish it. Great - I was an author! I was bitten, but what do I write next? I had read a lot of Westerns and knew a lot about the West so I wrote a Western. I called it the Return of the Sheriff. It was eventually published by Hales.
How many books have you written to date?
70, including 36 Westerns and 26 Jessica Blair novels.
Where do you get the ideas for your books?
Ideas come from all over. Something will spark an idea off. And it evolves from there. I pose questions as the story develops by asking myself: "What if?"
What do you find are the best and the worst things about writing?
The best thing is writing the first word - a new world awaits me. Worst: Copy editing is a chore - you have to be so careful.
Do you think writing keeps you young?
Yes I do.
Do you know how your stories are going to end before you start writing them?
Nearly always. I then have an aim.
You write under a female pseudonym. Does that ever bother you?
No. A female name is what the publisher wanted - so OK. I am the story-teller which is what I would have been if I had been using a male name. Jessica Blair came into being when my publisher, Piatkus, accepted my first historical saga and declared that, for various reasons, they would prefer to publish it under a female name and they suggested Jessica Blair.
Are your readers surprised when they find out you are a man?
Some are but whatever, they are looking for a good read and that is what I aim to give them.
How do you go about researching your books?
The internet brought a change in research. In my day there was no such thing. I used a public reference library but for me it was not always possible to get to one when I needed to so I gradually built up a library of my own relevant to my work.
Did you start out on a typewriter or writing long hand? Do you find that new technology makes the writer's job easier?
I wrote in longhand for a while and had the script typed for me. I then did my own typing but that was a chore because I wasn't a good typist. Then came the COMPUTER. My life changed because mistakes in typing were easily changed.
What are your thoughts on library closures? What should be done to keep more libraries open and why are libraries important?
I am strongly against closures. They are vital to us all and to our lives. Closures take away some of the bright lights that are essential to the well-being of our world. They bring a better understanding of the world and of relationships within it, so essential to a peaceful existence. If only people would let books speak to them for their own good.
What's the best advice anyone's ever given you?
Be young in heart and young in mind.
We have published a number of Jessica Blair titles. Interview by Nicky Solloway at Magna Large Print Books.